There has been plenty of talk about how short-handed D.C. United will be this afternoon, but New York City FC isn’t going to feel too sorry for their visitors. NYCFC is missing four players due to international call-ups, four (possibly five) more to injury, and had Alexander Ring get a yellow card accumulation suspension late in Wednesday’s 1-0 loss to the New England Revolution. When it comes to playing through the FIFA window, it’s tough all around.
Domè Torrent isn’t just missing bodies; he’s missing starters. Their leading scorer Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, crucial midfield anchor Ring, winger Jesus Medina, forward Jo-Inge Berget, center back Maxime Chanot, midfielder Ebenezer Ofori, and oft-used substitute Rodney Wallace would all be in line to start tonight if they were available. As a result, the Pigeons may be starting something more akin to an Open Cup lineup out of necessity.
Torrent has been trying to figure out a formation during a stretch that has seen his side win just once in seven outings. In their last five games, they’ve played a 433, a 442 diamond, and a 3412, which echoes back to Patrick Vieira’s first season in charge at Yankee Stadium. Most likely, though, the choice here is between the 433 and the diamond, as they may even find themselves playing a fullback at center back depending on whether Alexander Callens (questionable with a knee injury) can play or not.
Sean Johnson has fallen off the USMNT radar after staying on it for far too long, but that’s not to say he’s been a bad goalkeeper for the Pigeons. He’s still got a huge armspan and is very fast off his line, meaning he generally makes plenty of 1v1 saves. There are still issues with his distribution and rebound control, which United should key on. This might become a shootout, which will probably require picking up a cheap goal somewhere along the way.
Anton Tinnerholm was high on this site’s wish list when he was simply being linked to a move from Malmö to MLS, but sadly for us, he ended up with NYCFC. The 2017 Allsvenskan defender of the year has been outstanding all season long at right back, chipping in 4 goals and 5 assists to go with excellent defensive play. There’s an outside chance that, if Callens is hurt, he has to move inside to play center back; in that case, Saad Abdul-Salaam would step in, but the chances of that are low.
Ben Sweat and Ronald Matarrita have been alternating at left back recently, with no clear strategy involved. It appears to simply be down to form in training. However, with Matarrita possibly able to play on the left wing, or even left midfield if the diamond is retained, I’m giving Sweat an edge to start here. Matarrita is far better going forward and faster, but Sweat has been more consistent and plays a safer brand of soccer, balancing things out on a team full of risk-takers. Sweat could also play center back if Callens is out.
Callens feels like a probable starter since he played last week against New England, which would see him partner with Sebastien Ibeagha. NYCFC didn’t plan on using Ibeagha very often, but between injuries to every other center back, he’s started 15 times. The 26 year old is overall pretty solid, though perhaps lacks the quick anticipation you’d expect from someone starting for a team that until recently was in the Supporters Shield chase.
18-year-old homegrown product James Sands was handed a first-ever start against the Revs, and with Ring suspended, he’s a lock to start again at the base of the midfield. Sands is maybe not at the Chris Durkin level as far as being a USMNT prospect down the road, but he’s still in that discussion. There are times where he still telegraphs his intentions, though, and United will surely want to pressure him. If Sands is up to the task of sorting out when Wayne Rooney drops underneath to combine with Luciano Acosta, well...that would be a surprise.
Spanish veteran Eloi Amagat is the favorite to replace Ofori as the #8 in the midfield trio, but that may be the most contested position in this eleven. Matarrita could play there given that he played as a shuttler in their diamond on Wednesday, while Tommy McNamara has spent plenty of time in that spot as a substitute this season. Amagat is the most conventional choice, though, as he allows Maxi Moralez to push up higher. Amagat may be more comfortable on the right side of the triangle, which is where Moralez also prefers to play, so that may be a factor in Torrent’s decision.
Speaking of Moralez, he’s been one of the best players in MLS this season. He’s one assist short of the MLS lead, he’s added 8 goals (including 4 game-winners), and has carried NYCFC’s attack in a season where David Villa has missed 10 games and hasn’t been quite at his previous best. The diminutive Argentine roams all over, dropping deep and popping up on the wings to prompt possession, but always seems to get into dangerous spots around the box anyway. Tracking him is an extraordinary challenge.
That also applies to Villa, who may finally be losing the battle to Father Time. However, it’s all relative: being arguably the best forward in MLS before taking a small step down means still being probably the best finisher in the league, and Villa has 10 goals and 4 assists in 1,304 minutes. He may not be the unstoppable MVP-level force he was recently, but he’s still one of the most dangerous players in the league thanks to his intelligence and movement.
Summer signing Valentin Castellanos is Tajouri-Shradi’s stand-in, a busy forward/winger hybrid who frequently gets into promising positions. However, he lacks the Libyan’s clinical qualities in the final third, making him more of an assistant to Villa and Moralez than a genuine third goalscoring threat. That said, he’s still a pest of a player, and it may well be that he’s just getting his feet wet. United can’t let him build up any confidence.
The question is who Torrent will slot in opposite the the Argentine. With Tajouri-Shradi, Medina, and Berget all unavailable, promising youngster Jonathan Lewis might start on the right wing. Lewis has speed to burn and should really have gotten more playing time this year, but NYCFC is loaded when it comes to wide forwards. However, within their coaching staff, there is unexplained skepticism towards Lewis, which means we could see McNamara or Matarrita starting on the left with Castellanos on the right.
In the case of a diamond being trotted out again, Villa and Castellanos will pair up as the forwards. Moralez would slot in as the #10, with Amagat and Matarrita (or possibly McNamara) in shuttler roles ahead of Sands. It probably depends on whether Torrent wants an open, transition-filled game, which favors the 433, or if he’d like to focus on stringing together possession while packing central midfield in the diamond.